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Shakespeare’s Indian avatars

Published : Apr 22, 2016, 11:57 pm IST
Updated : Apr 22, 2016, 11:57 pm IST

British Council’s recent study says that Indians love the Bard even more than the Britons do — 83 percent of the sample survey to be precise.

Still from Maro Piyu Gayo Rangoon
 Still from Maro Piyu Gayo Rangoon

British Council’s recent study says that Indians love the Bard even more than the Britons do — 83 percent of the sample survey to be precise. And if you happen to be in Mumbai and not fall into the remaining 17 percent, today would be a good day for you to step out into the city and indulge in some Shakespearean romanticism. As the city gets all set to celebrate the legendary playwright’s 400-year-long reign over English literature, culture and the stage, we get four Shakespeare-enthusiasts to try and decode why we’ve adopted Stratford upon Avon’s favourite son as our own.

In the recent past, the city has been home to some of the best theatre adaptations that have travelled across the globe (The Globe Theatre included) and these four fans of the Bard have been at the forefront of ensuring that Shakespeare’s legacy continues to charm us all. Sunil Shanbag’s Maro Piyu Gayo Rangoon was a Gujarati adaptation of All’s Well That Ends Well, while Atul Kumar’s Piya Behrupiya was a Hindi musical of Twefth Night. Both the shows had premiered at the Bard’s very own Globe Theatre in London. The plays were highly acclaimed and they keep returning to the city to packed venues. On the other hand, veteran thespian Salim Ghouse’s Shakespearewalla was invited to Stratford Upon Avon Arts Festival making him the first Indian to perform at the festival in English. Rupesh Tillu’s Madbeth is a quirky take on a tragedy, where he takes his inspiration from Macbeth and makes it something of his own. We speak to them and find out how they like their Shakespeare.

Sunil Shanbag Maro Piyu Gayo Rangoon:

In 2012, I was invited to the Globe to Globe festival in London. They had asked me if I could do an adaptation in Gujarati. I had worked in Gujarati in the past, so that was not a problem. When we were asked to adapt All’s Well That Ends Well, we had to figure how to enter the play and how to make an adaptation. So the only condition that I laid before them was that I will make the play our own and it would be a complete Indian adaptation of a Shakespearean play. More specifically, it would be strongly in the context of Gujarati culture, history and theatre. One of the key things I had in mind was that this play needed to have a life before and after the Globe festival. So it needed to be an adaptation that would connect to essentially a Gujarati audience, which meant to make a more mainstream commercial audience interested in Shakespeare. I thought of placing it in the mercantile history of Gujarat and Bombay (which was an emerging port city).

While in the original play, the movement is from a small provincial place in France to Paris, the court of the King, then to Florence and other parts of Europe. In our adaptation, the play is set in 1900 and in starts in a small village in Saurashtra, and then moves to Bombay, instead of the King in France, we have a vary powerful merchant prince. And then from there the action shifts to Rangoon in Burma, which was an important trading outpost in those days. In a sense we presented to the Gujarati audience a piece of its own history. So the identification became very profound for them.

I was extremely fortunate to collaborate with Mihir Bhuta (writer), he has done an incredible job to the adaptation. He understood the core and then he added so many layers to it.

One big advantage that we have over the West, especially the British, is that we are not as reverential to Shakespeare as they are. So when we do a Shakespearean play either in translation or an adaptation, we find ways to make it our own. Therefore, their ability to play with Shakespeare is far more limited than what we can do. So we make it relevant in our own ways. I think it will be unfair to seek relevance in plays that were written 400 years ago, but it is what you do with them that makes it relevant. His plays are still relevant in the broad themes and the human elements.

Salim Ghouse Shakespearewallah:

Shakespeare for me starts with language and I often tell my English friends that he is the greatest Englishman because of his contribution to the language and his insight into the human conditions. Like any great work of art, his work is timeless. A lot of his lines hold truth in today’s world especially India. Macbeth, for example, is so relevant to our contemporary politics. But in the late 80s and early 90s when I was adapting several Shakespearean plays (Hamlet, Merchant of Venice), I always wanted to make it my own because the sunset looks the same for all of us, but a Van Gogh will paint it differently, a Renoir will paint it in another way. For me, theatre is a rigorous spiritual journey.

When I couldn’t find enough actors who could think alike, I created Shakespearewallah, which is not only my take on Shakespeare but also on other Shakespearean actors. Through the play I pay tribute to several of my favourite performances, including Laurence Olivier, Toshiro Mifune (Throne of Blood) and Innokenti Smoktunovsky.

Rupesh Tillu Madbeth:

While I was pursuing my MFA in physical comedy at the Stockholm Academy of Dramatic Arts, the plot of Macbeth, especially, the fact that there were no heroes in the play, immensely fascinated me. I thought of making it into a comedy. To change the genre was much more challenging for me. Adapting a comedy into a comedy or a tragedy into a tragedy is easy. Shakespeare’s target audience were laymen and that’s the magic of his plays. They still work wonders. There was no concept of fourth wall and as an actor you are in the same space and time along with the audience. And when I am adapting I usually try it out on stage, unlike a writer, I don’t sit and write and then perform, I enact and subsequently find out ways. What I do is what I call prayoga, it means experimentation, and I believe we cannot advance as a culture by simply imitating.

Atul Kumar Piya Behrupiya:

The idea of adapting Twelfth Night into a musical occurred to me while we were almost in the middle of our audition. I had never dealt with live music before, so it was challenging for me too. Initially we didn't know how to go about it, and we tried a lot of improvisation. Slowly things started falling into place. A lot of it came from what the actors were actually doing on stage.

The day we performed at The Globe Theatre, it started raining and since it's an open-air amphitheater, we thought that people wouldn't turn up. But not only did they stay put, they came back even after the interval which was an absolute shocker. They wore their overcoats and drank their beers as they cheered and sang with the actors. And that's the best thing about Shakespeare — his insight into human conditions —which have universal appeal. Even though many didn't understand the language they followed the storyline. But people often then to take him too seriously. His plays are meant to be spoken and there shouldn’t be any rules, one should make one’s own. Which is why, I have been rather notorious in the circle of purists. So many have come up to me and said 'Atul, all's well but this wasn't really Shakespeare' to which I would say 'But I never wanted it to be so.' Purists should go to a place like Royal Academy of Arts for a purer experience.

Workshop — Shakespeare for Young This workshop by Yasmeen Pardiwala will focus on introducing Shakespeare to children. Registration Fee: Rs 500, for age 9 to 14, Today, from 12 to 2 pm

Workshop — Universality in Shakespearean Drama In this session, Yasmeen will explain the universal appeal of Shakespeare Registration Fee: Rs 500, for age 16 and above Today, from 2.30 pm to 4.30 pm

Workshop — The Relevance of Shakespeare today Donna Reen discusses the contribution of William Shakespeare in many of the phrases and expressions that are used on regular basis today. Registration Fee: Rs 500, for ages 16 and above Today, from 4.30 pm to 6.30 pm

Hamlet Film Screening Shakespeare’s most iconic work, Hamlet is the story of loyalty, love, betrayal, murder and madness. Hamlet’s father is dead and Denmark has crowned Hamlet’s uncle the new king. Consumed by grief, Hamlet struggles to exact revenge, with devastating consequences. Registration Fee: Rs 500, for ages 13 years and above Today, from 7 pm to 9.30 pm

At British Council, 901, Tower 1, One Indiabulls Centre, Elphinstone Road (West) To register call on 6748 6790

Rupesh will be performing Madbeth on April 30 At the St. Andrews Auditorium, Bandra (W)